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New study in West County aims to provide local expertise

  • A family pauses on the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls to take a family photo on a summer day. Shelburne is a West County town. RECORDER FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The Ashfield Fall Festival. Ashfield is a West County town. RECORDER FILE PHOTO /DAN LITTLE

  • Toby Gould and Beth Bandy of Charlemont, co-directors of Rural Commonwealth. RECORDER PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO—



Recorder Staff
Sunday, October 15, 2017

For decades, the West County Franklin County towns have been exclaiming they are unlike anywhere else in the state — especially east of Interstate 495. Now there’s a new study to prove it.

Two founders of the 18-month-old “Small Towns Summit,” former Charlemont Selectman Toby Gould and current Selectboard member Beth Bandy have formed a new nonprofit organization called “Rural Commonwealth,” and have put out its first study: “The Western Franklin County Business Report.”

According to the West County report, out of 460 local businesses listed in state corporation records or with registration certificates in town clerks’ offices, 84 percent are “sole proprietorships” –businesses owned and run by one person, and that nearly two-thirds of these businesses are based in the home.

“This number is significant, because many (state) economic and workforce development plans covering this region have relied on sources that exclude sole proprietorships,” says the report. Also, Gould and Bandy point out, it means that many of these businesses are not located in the town center or a village center, where it is more likely to have access to foot traffic, public transportation or a sewer district.

“One take-away from past economic development reports covering this region is a need for development of more commercial space,” the study says. “Many business owners we interviewed described working from home as a convenient and cost-effective alternative to renting commercial space,” the report notes, but “some business owners described a trade-off between renting commercial space in village centers and being able to hire employees.”

“Not all business owners who currently are working from home wish to remain there,” it says.

The top five industries for home-based businesses are: Agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing (19 percent); professional, scientific and technical services (14 percent); construction (12 percent); arts entertainment or recreation (11 percent.)

Bandy and Gould heard business owners’ concerns about broadband, state regulations and transportation. Interviews with 15 business owners opened other issues such as staff training, access to capital, marketing and lodging for both customers and staff, they explained.

Here are the top hurdles in West County towns for business and economic development, according to the report:

Internet access. Businesses that can afford it pay a lot for internet, but many others can’t afford it. For instance, Zoar Outdoor paid $10,000 to connect directly to the MBI Middle Mile and Berkshire East also paid for its own internet system. But 90 Main, a small breakfast and lunch place, pays $180 per month for internet access that only allows them to operate a credit card machine. Also, Sidehill Farm in Hawley does statewide business — but does it all by relying on an AT&T cell phone data plan, and a “hotspot” from a line-of-sight connection to a cell tower.

Marketing help. Some of the businesses wanted to see more cooperative marketing of West County as a travel destination with a wide range of offerings to visitors, from arts and culture venues to outdoor recreations and restaurants. Jay Healy of Hall Tavern Farm in Charlemont pointed out the difference in skill sets between making high-quality products and having the time or technical ability to market those products effectively. Peggy Hart, owner of Bedfellow Blankets in Buckland, spoke of marketing West County as a destination for local textile industries and sheep farmers. She suggested having a weekend destination event to highlight the region’s many skilled artisans.

Staffing and housing for employees. Some responders said it is hard to find skilled local labor, especially for jobs in the most remote locations. For instance, Sidehill Farm, which makes yogurt sold throughout the state and raises grass-fed cows, usually has at least a job vacant, which has included everything from a dairy herd manager to a production facility worker. And while some businesses, like Zoar Outdoor, have a network of rental options for seasonal employees, many cannot find nearby housing for workers.

Three-phase power and electrical grid problems. This was an issue Gould and Bandy only learned about by talking to businesses. Blacksmith Justin Morrell of Morrell Metalsmiths in Colrain has a “sweet spot” with internet access, cell phone reception and three-phase power that enabled him to buy more affordable metal forging equipment than he could have bought if he had the single-phase electric line put up in most rural regions of Franklin County. A 2013 report for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources says the single-phase distribution circuitry put in long ago in low-population regions still exists in at least 60 percent of West County. Gould said the three-phase circuitry would also be a benefit to farmers using milking machines and even for “snow guns’ producing man-made snow at Berkshire East.

More lodging. A few business owners said there is a need for more high-end lodging. Jon Schaefer of Berkshire East sees a need for “50 to 60 nice rooms” in addition to the 18 rooms his family owns at the Warfield House.

Water and sewer. The three sewer districts in West County — Charlemont, Ashfield and the Shelburne Falls district — according to the report, are not municipal entities and lack the borrowing authority of town governments. “The financial stability of these sewer districts is fragile, based exclusively on fees earned for services to homes and businesses within the sewer district.”

Increasingly complex state regulations. Hogness says running a retail business in West County requires the time and sophistication of running a business in a major shopping mall, with state reporting requirements for staffing, taxes, insurance coverage and retail sales. Amy Klippenstein of Sidehill Farm was unable to participate in a Somerville cheese festival because it required health certificates not offered in Hawley, since no one had requested one before.

Taking action

Once West County towns have broadband internet, Rural Commonwealth wants to offer a one-day conference with educators, business owners, technology experts and workforce development professions on how to maximize broadband use to explore employment needs of local businesses. The group will also explore other possibilities, including: collaborative websites, marketing the region as a destination and West County crafts tours.

Another idea is to strengthen connections between existing businesses and create a resource guide to local contractors and suppliers. Another plan is to work with energy providers to discuss increased access to the three-phase electrical power. They also want to bring training programs to West County.

The Small Town Summit is now a project under Rural Commonwealth, and these summits will be held in other parts of the state. The next one is to take place in Goshen next month.

The report is the first project to come from Rural Commonwealth, which hopes to become a connecting point for about 170 rural towns in the state — many sharing common problems to future development and growth.

The Western Franklin County Business Report began in May. Co-directors Bandy and Gould say this report will be the first in a series about economic development in rural Massachusetts. The report was released about a week ago and sent to state officials and local representatives. The study pertains to Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Rowe and Shelburne — a 250 square-mile region.

The difference between their report and other economic development studies, they say, is that many researchers don’t come here to do the work. “State agencies look on their computers first for information,” Gould remarked. “You can’t blame them — it’s a lot cheaper to work on your computer than to come out here and drive around for information. But the experts you’re relying on are not locals. And the experts ARE the locals, here.”

“When you talk to Karen Hogness (of Avery’s General Store), with 30 years experience in business here, that’s an expert,” Gould said. “When you talk to the Ashfield Hardware (owners), they’re the experts.”

“In all the work we’re doing, our emphasis is on ‘Who are the folks who are running the businesses and have the day-to-day experience that’s really important’,” said Bandy. “We’re piloting this process, and the point isn’t just to do a report, but to get projects started that will make a difference.”

“What we have to do is remove the barriers for the small companies already here, and the barriers for more companies to come in,” Gould said.

To see the report and stories about economic issues in rural towns, go online to:

www.ruralcommonwealth.org

To reach Diane Broncaccio call 413-772-0261, ext. 277 or email: dbroncaccio@recorder.com